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Cheryl Smithgall, Ph.D.

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Vulnerable Children, Underperforming Schools: The Need for Cross-Agency Collaboration

Posted: 12/27/11 12:25 PM ET

As Congress debates reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), we need to consider how our educational policy priorities will or will not benefit our most vulnerable students. If policymakers are interested in the underperformance of schools, they need to be interested in vulnerable children such as -- but not limited to -- those in foster care. To the extent that policymakers are interested in long-term outcomes for vulnerable children, they need to be interested in the underperformance of schools. Because underperforming schools are unlikely to succeed without addressing the broader needs of vulnerable children -- many of whom have some involvement with the child welfare system -- efforts to reform child welfare systems and school systems are necessarily interconnected.

Senator Franken's Fostering Success in Education amendment to ESEA is a large step in the right direction, calling for collaboration between child welfare education agencies in ensuring educational stability for foster children who may be moved frequently from one placement to another. But its focus is too narrow, both because it embraces only foster children rather than the broader group of vulnerable children and because honing in too closely on school mobility leaves other important aspects of the education of vulnerable children out of the equation. Its narrow focus on children currently in foster care will create tensions for the very systems that will have to collaborate.

Why is it necessary to look beyond children in foster care? Foster care is temporary; at any point in time, children with the same vulnerabilities as foster children far outnumber those actually in out-of-home care. If we consider all students who have had any contact with the child welfare system and the fact that those students often cluster in a few schools, data show that the proportion of vulnerable students can approach or even exceed 20 percent in some urban schools. These are typically the underperforming schools of interest to policymakers.

In struggling schools with large numbers of vulnerable students, collaboration between the education and child welfare systems can be hampered by the fact that the systems have different philosophical orientations that may drive them to serve different children at a given point in time. Education is universal; child welfare is targeted. Schools work with all children. Foster care social workers work only with those families in which it is deemed appropriate to supersede parental rights. Foster care is intended to be time-limited. Education spans 12 years or more. The degree of overlap between these systems depends on the systems' roles and which students they each should serve.

We are accustomed to thinking about the educational achievement of vulnerable children as an issue of the individual child. It is also a school-level and system-level issue, raising important questions around how to foster collaboration between the two systems, design interventions, and redefine system roles so as to enhance the education of the most vulnerable children. Schools may be the public institution best positioned to identify the needs of these children before they become involved with the child welfare system. However, intervention in family systems is not the domain of schools. The expertise of the child welfare system in assessing and working with families in crisis may be valuable to the education system in identifying and responding to vulnerable students and their families. We need to define the collaboration in ways that draw on the expertise of each of these systems.

Reducing school mobility is an important goal; however, we must be cautious about assuming that either educational stability or mobility will, on its own, have an appreciable effect on school performance. The idea of educational stability responds to a concern that the child welfare system should not be a source of unnecessary disruptions in a child's educational experiences. Although educational stability may lead to valued outcomes, for example, continuity in relationships with teachers or in the instruction a child receives, it is not a guarantee of exposure to strong academic instruction or access to the support services a child needs in order to benefit from instruction. As we take up important issues of school mobility, attendance, and achievement, we must keep a focus on how we can best support vulnerable students in their learning. The supports and interventions we provide need to be grounded in a solid understanding of child development. Research shows that early developmental and educational experiences are critical to later educational success. For vulnerable children, disengagement from classroom learning and disruptive behavior in school may be a normal and adaptive response to life circumstances that diminish a child's ability to focus and distract the child's attention from learning.

The Investing in Innovation, or i3, grants from the U.S. Department of Education offer a unique opportunity to inform efforts to meet the educational needs of vulnerable children. As we reflect on those investments in innovation, we should consider whether what works for students who struggle with learning may in fact be what works for other vulnerable students. How can new knowledge be applied to or adapted for these students? If we study programs implemented through these grants, we may be able to inform efforts to improve the performance of children or schools facing similar challenges.

In conclusion, if we confine our concern to children in foster care while they are in foster care, we miss an opportunity for greater impact. We need to do more for a broader group of vulnerable children, and we need to recognize the challenges inherent in collaboration between the child welfare and education systems. We need to work together to address the needs of vulnerable children and their families while also identifying the instructional ideas in education today that address the needs of our most vulnerable students. We need strong collaborations across the child welfare and education systems, we need to reconsider the roles of these systems in working with vulnerable students, and we need policies and funding that support these collaborative efforts.